SYLLABUS (This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: LaVECCHIA, J.
LaVECCHIA, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
The Court considers whether a private day care center that includes a small kindergarten class constitutes an elementary school for purposes of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7, which establishes the criminal penalty for selling or attempting to sell drugs within areas designated as school zones.
In April 2005, defendant Jason Shelley sold cocaine to an undercover police officer while standing within 1,000 feet of the Goddard School for Early Childhood Development of North Brunswick ("Goddard"). Goddard is part of a chain of childcare and development centers. It is licensed by the State of New Jersey as a state childcare center and offers programs for children from six weeks to six years old. The North Brunswick location includes one full-day kindergarten program staffed by a state-certified teacher; however, it does not offer schooling above the kindergarten level. Ten kindergarten students were enrolled at Goddard when Shelley sold drugs to the undercover officer.
Shelley was arrested and indicted for third-degree distribution of cocaine near school property contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7. He filed a motion to dismiss the charge, arguing that Goddard is not an elementary school for the purposes of the school-zone statute. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the presence of a kindergarten class on the premises was dispositive that Goddard was an elementary school for the purposes of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7's application. Shelley entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the disposition of his motion to dismiss. The trial court sentenced Shelley to four years imprisonment with three years of parole ineligibility.
On Shelley's appeal, the Appellate Division vacated the conviction in an unpublished opinion. Based on its interpretation of the statute, the panel concluded that the addition of a ten-student kindergarten to a pre-school child care center does not render the institution an elementary school under the language of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.
The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 203 N.J. 95 (2010).
HELD: The Appellate Division correctly vacated defendant Jason Shelley's conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 for distributing illicit drugs within 1,000 feet of a school because the inclusion of a small kindergarten class in a day care center does not transform the center into an elementary school for purposes of construing and applying the statute.
1. When interpreting a statute, the goal is to determine and effectuate the Legislature's intent. The language of the statute is given its ordinary and accepted meaning. If the language is clear and unambiguous, the inquiry ends there. If the language yields more than one plausible interpretation, extrinsic evidence such as legislative history can be considered. Guidance also can be taken from the doctrine of lenity, a corollary to the doctrine of strict construction, which dictates that when ambiguities cannot be resolved by the statute's text or extrinsic evidence, a criminal statute must be interpreted in favor of the defendant. (Pp. 5-4)
2. N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 makes it a crime to distribute, dispense, or possess with intent to distribute an illicit drug "while on any school property used for school purposes which is owned by or leased to any elementary or secondary school or school board, or within 1,000 feet of such school property . . . ." The terms "school" and "elementary" are not defined by the statute. To analyze whether the statute applies to the Goddard School, the Court first considers the dictionary definition of "elementary school," which generally includes the first six to eight grades and may include a kindergarten program as an introduction to formal education. The Court considers also educational provisions in the State Department of Education regulations and finds that none definitively establish whether a kindergarten class, standing unconnected to other elementary grades, constitutes an "elementary school." The Court turns, therefore, to extrinsic aids to discern the Legislature's intent. (Pp. 5-7)
3. N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 was adopted in connection with the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1986 to combat the infiltration of drug trafficking activity into school safety zones. The bill that originally was introduced in the Legislature would have addressed offenses within 1,000 feet of the property surrounding any school that provides instruction for children up to and including the age of 18 years. However, the law as it was adopted narrowed the school zone to property owned by any elementary or secondary school or school board. Furthermore, the Official Commentary accompanying the law expressly stated that the definition of school property did not include "nursery, preschool or day care centers . . . ." In 1988, a Senate Sponsor Statement relating to amendments summarized the original intent of the statute as creating a safety zone around schools "in recognition that children routinely congregate on school property and schoolyards before and after the normal school day, and during summer recess and other vacation periods." As such, the Legislature limited school zones to areas around elementary or secondary schools, rather than any school serving children ages eighteen and under. (Pp. 7-11)
4. Because N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 is a penal statute, it must be strictly construed. After analyzing legislative intent through the final language included in the statute, amendments, and the Legislature's elimination of day care providers from the statute's scope, the Court does not conclude that the Legislature intended to ensnare persons close to day care centers that happen to include a private kindergarten class. The Goddard School is a licensed day care facility, which is the type of establishment that the Legislature excluded from the statute's application. (Pp. 11-12)
5. The desire to protect places where children congregate and the exclusion of nursery care, day care, and preschool programs from the statute's reach suggest that the Legislature did not consider nursery school students reasonably vulnerable to the drug culture, presumably because such youthful children are constantly supervised and do not congregate outside the watchful eyes of parents and teachers. Such children are not free to gather, unsupervised, in or around such facilities as older children might around elementary or secondary schools. The Court notes also that these private facilities do not serve as centers of public or civic activity or recreation for children in the same manner as may an elementary or secondary school or its property. The Court finds that the Legislature rationally differentiated nursery care, day care, and preschool providers and made N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 inapplicable to such entities. (Pp. 12-13)
6. The Court concludes that the Legislature intended the statute to apply only to protected zones around schools comprised of generic levels of instruction (elementary or secondary) or around school property serving school purposes if leased or owned by an elementary or secondary school or school board. A private day care center that includes as its highest level a small kindergarten class does not constitute an elementary school for purposes of the statute. The Court does not fashion an omnibus definition of "elementary school," but simply holds that institutions such as Goddard do not trigger liability under the statute as drafted by the Legislature. If the Court's perception is inconsistent with the statute's original purpose, legislative clarification is needed. (Pp. 13-14)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO, dissenting, notes that kindergarten is a constitutionally required grade in our system of free public schools and concludes from the legislative history that the statute applies to the Goddard School.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, ALBIN, HOENS and JUDGE STERN, temporarily assigned, join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO filed a separate, dissenting opinion.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. JASON SHELLEY, Defendant-Respondent.
Argued November 30, 2010 -- Decided March 9, 2011 On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
JUSTICE LaVECCHIA delivered the opinion of the Court.
In this appeal we are called on to review the Appellate Division's vacation of defendant Jason Shelley's conviction for the third-degree offense of distributing cocaine within a school zone, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7 (establishing criminal penalty for selling or attempting to sell drugs within areas designated as school zones). Defendant admitted to selling cocaine to an undercover officer in the parking lot of a pub located within 1,000 feet of "The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development of North Brunswick," a local franchise of a nationwide chain of licensed day care providers offering programs for children from infancy through age six. This particular Goddard School included a kindergarten class with ten full-time students enrolled. The question raised by this appeal is whether the presence of a kindergarten class converts this childcare center into an "elementary school" for purposes of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7. Because the plain language and legislative history of our state's school-zone statute do not indicate that such enterprises as this Goddard School fall within its application, and because we must strictly construe the penal statute in issue, we affirm the Appellate Division judgment.
The record reveals the following information about the childcare facility at the center of this appeal.
The Goddard School for Early Childhood Development of North Brunswick ("Goddard") is part of a chain of childcare and development centers. Goddard is licensed by the State of New Jersey as a state childcare center and offers programs for children from six weeks to six years old. The North Brunswick location includes one full-day kindergarten program staffed by a state-certified teacher; however, it does not offer schooling above the kindergarten level. Ten kindergarten students were enrolled at Goddard when, on the evening of April 8, 2005, defendant sold cocaine to an undercover police officer while standing within 1,000 feet of Goddard's facility.
Defendant was arrested and indicted for third-degree distribution of cocaine near school property contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.*fn1 He filed a motion to dismiss the charge on the basis that Goddard is not an elementary school for the purposes of the school-zone statute. The trial court denied the motion on March 30, 2007, finding that the presence of a kindergarten class on the premises was dispositive that Goddard was an elementary school for the purposes of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7's application. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to the charge, reserving the right to appeal the disposition of his motion to dismiss. The trial court subsequently sentenced defendant to four years imprisonment with three years of parole ineligibility.
On defendant's appeal, the Appellate Division vacated the conviction in an unpublished opinion. Applying rules of statutory interpretation that call for a plain language understanding and strict construction of a penal statute, and invoking the doctrine of lenity where a penal statute is found to be ambiguous, the panel concluded that "the addition of a ten-student kindergarten to a pre-school child care center does not render the institution an 'elementary school'" under the language of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7.
When interpreting statutory language, the goal is to divine and effectuate the Legislature's intent. DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005). In furtherance of that goal, we begin each such inquiry with the language of the statute, giving the terms used therein their ordinary and accepted meaning. Ibid. When the Legislature's chosen words lead to one clear and unambiguous result, the interpretive process comes to a close, without the need to consider extrinsic aids. State v. D.A., 191 N.J. 158, 164 (2007) (citation omitted). We seek out extrinsic evidence, such as legislative history, for assistance when statutory language yields "more than one plausible interpretation." DiProspero, supra, 183 N.J. at 492-93.
When interpreting penal statutes, the doctrines of strict construction and lenity also provide guidance. D.A., supra, 191 N.J. at 164. The doctrine of lenity, a corollary to the doctrine of strict construction, dictates that when ambiguities "cannot be resolved by either the statute's text or extrinsic aids," a criminal statute must be interpreted ...